Dalmore Distillery lies on the north shore of the Cromarty Firth, close to Alness and immediately to the south of the main A9 as it makes its way from the Cromarty Firth Bridge north past Invergordon and Tain to the Dornoch Firth Bridge. You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process.
Dalmore is strangely unknown amongst aficionados of Scottish distilleries and the whiskies they produce. The new visitor centre should help remedy that, as should the move to increase the proportion of the output that is kept to mature as single malt Dalmore rather than going into blends. Which is good news for all of us, as this exceptionally nice whisky really does deserve to be better known and more widely available.
Dalmore's location is as lovely as any distillery in Scotland. It looks out across the Cromarty Firth to the Black Isle, the depth of the waters of the firth obvious from the line of mothballed oil rigs moored along its length. The foreshore gives a particularly good view of the distillery itself, while nearby the "Yankee Pier" stretches out into the Cromarty Firth. This was built by the US Navy detachment stationed here in the First World War who used the distillery premises to prepare mines.
The visitor centre occupies much of the ground floor of the stone building nearest the shoreline. Upstairs are the distillery offices, partly lined with oak panels taken many years ago from a grand house on the Black Isle due for demolition. A welcoming reception is combined with a shop in which you can buy Dalmore's whiskies and a range of other products.
After a brief video, a tour of Dalmore is full of surprises. The highlight is certainly the still room. Here you find stills that look unlike any you'll have seen before. The spirit stills have cooling jackets around their necks to help condense the spirit within. One of these dates back to 1874 and is probably the oldest part of any working still in Scotland. The wash stills come with unusual flat tops, just above the point at which the lyne arms depart the still.
Given the tendency for many "features" in still configuration to result from historical accident rather than design, and given the older and rather lower roof line visible around the wall of the still house, it is tempting to suggest that flat tops result from the original wash stills being found, when the distillery was built in 1839, to be just a bit too large for the building intended to house them.
And, as ever, replacement stills have had to match the originals exactly for fear of changing the character of the whisky. The rest of the still room is a mix of splendid brass spirit safes and a vast control console that would look perfectly at home in a 1950s nuclear power station.
Other pleasures of a visit to Dalmore include the chance to view a unique wooden wash charger that must be fully 20ft across. And - believe it or not - even the system for moving the draff, the barley residue left after mashing which goes for use as cattle food, has character at Dalmore. Every so often the pipework is cleaned by putting a size-5 football through it. Even after you see a football waiting for use in a bucket of cleaning fluid you wonder if your leg might be being pulled. The football catching-tube on the side of the draff hopper confirms the story is genuine.
Perhaps the final really unusual talking point comes in the bonded warehouse. Here you can view Dalmore cask 2000/1, sitting next to cask 2000/2 and so on. On New Year's Eve, 1999, staff of Dalmore and their families gathered at the distillery to see in the New Millennium. And to produce, as the echoes of the chimes of midnight had barely faded, what was very probably the first scotch whisky produced anywhere in the Third Millennium.